How to Become an Invisible Street Photographer

"Contemplation" – show with my Ricoh GRIII

A while back on my Facebook page and Twitter I asked you guys “if you had any street photography superpower, what would it be?” The vast majority of you answered: invisibility.

As a street photographer, being invisible and blending in with your environment is key in getting an amazing street photograph. However, easier said than done right? In this post I will try to outline my thoughts on how to best be invisible when shooting on the streets, and what has helped me stay low-key when I am out shooting.

1. Look behind your subjects when taking their photo

"The Thinker". I spotted this subject from behind, circled around, and slowly approached him from the front and looked behind him when taking this photo.

Although looking straight into the eyes of your subjects is a great way to build your courage, it is not the best way to be invisible. If you want to stay truly low-key, I suggest to never make eye contact with your subjects and look behind your subjects when shooting their photo.

What do I mean when I say this? Well let me illustrate an example: If I see an interesting person sitting down that I want to take a photograph of, I walk closer to them pretending that I see something fascinating behind (or above) them. I then casually walk over, crouch, and keep my eyes fixated on that imaginary thing behind them. However when I bring my eye to the viewfinder, my wide-angle lens allows me to capture that person in the frame. After hitting the shutter and removing my eye from the viewfinder, I continue to look at that imaginary thing and walk away.

When shooting like this, I have never had anybody inquire what I am taking a photo of or confronting me in a negative manner.

Now how does this technique help you not be “seen?” Well first of all, the person will obviously see you—however they will not tense up or feel threatened by your presence. They assume that you are taking a photograph of something else, which still allows you to get that candid look that you want. After all—it is impossible for us to truly become invisible ;).

2. Use a point-and-shoot

Ricoh GRIII, the best point and shoot for street photography

If you really don’t want to get noticed on the street when shooting street photography, I believe that the smaller camera you have, the better. In-fact, the amount that you stick-out as a street photographer is proportional to your camera size.

Chris Gampt over at The Phoblographer recently hooked it up with a Ricoh GRIII, a fixed-lens point and shoot I have been really fascinated about with some time. Everyone I know who shoots with it swears by it—especially the “snap-focus” feature which allows for you to shoot with a pre-focused distance without a shutter delay. This allows you to get incredibly close to your subjects without them noticing you.

After shooting for about two weeks with this camera, hardly anybody notices me anymore. I carry the Ricoh GRIII by my side in a wrist-strap and when I take photos people simply assume that I am a tourist and aren’t alarmed at all by my camera. Not only that, but the shutter is nearly silent. Compare this with using a massive DSLR when on the streets. People instantly tense up, and think that you are a threat or a “creep” of some kind.

Although the Ricoh GRIII does have some shortfalls (no built-in viewfinder and limited file-buffer), you can’t beat it (or any point and shoot) when trying to stay low-key on the streets. Stay tuned for my in-depth review of the Ricoh GRIII on The Phoblographer in the next few weeks.

3. Shoot from the hip

"Pushing Along" – shot from the hip.

Shooting from the hip is an amazing way to shoot without being seen. Essentially to shoot from the hip, you walk around in public and take photos from around your waist. The beauty of this technique is that you never need to bring your viewfinder to your eye, which means that people don’t know that you’re take a photograph of them.

Although shooting from the hip may sound easy, it is difficult to master. First of all if you are untrained, 95% of your images are going to look like crap. Either they are going to be out-of-focus, poorly framed, or blurry. However with enough practice and diligence, you can be like New York street photographer Joe Wigfall who never has to bring his camera to his face to shoot.

If you want to shoot from the hip, use these guidelines:

a) Use a wide-angle prime lens

Using a wide- angle prime lens allows you to capture most of your subject and scene when shooting from the hip. If your lens isn’t wide enough, you will have difficulty correctly framing your images and capture everything in the scene. If you are shooting with a full-frame, I highly recommend the Canon 24mm f/2.8 (if you are shooting with a Canon DSLR) and the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 (if you are shooting with a Nikon DSLR). If you are shooting with a 1.6x Crop sensor, I recommend the Canon 20mm f/2.8 and the Nikon 20mm f/2.8.

b) Use the smallest aperture possible

When I am shooting in sunny los angeles, I always shoot with f/16 when I am outside. Why? Because it allows me to easily use the Sunny 16 rule, while giving me a deep depth-of-field which allows me to make sure my subjects are going to be in-focus when I take a photo of them from my hip. When you are shooting and it gets darker I suggest you to increase your ISO instead of stepping down your aperture (the more depth-of-field you can get, the better).

c) Have at least 1/250th of a second shutter speed

In my experience, having anything slower than a 1/250th of a shutter speed, your subjects will be blurry. Therefore when shooting, make sure to always pay attention to your shutter speed and make sure that it doesn’t get any slower (especially if you’re walking into the shade or your lighting constantly fluctuates).

d) Pre-focus

Autofocus is quite lousy when shooting from the hip. To alleviate this problem, use the focusing ring on your lens to pre-focus to a selected distance and never change it when shooting. I suggest you to use around 5ft as a focusing distance. This means that whenever a subjects is around 5 feet from you and you shoot their photo from the hip, they will be in-focus.

e) Shoot fully-manual

When you are shooting fully-manual, you will ensure that your shutter speed and aperture stay constant and never change. Although changing your settings on-the-fly with constantly changing lighting situations can be a pain-in-the-ass, it ensures that your images aren’t blurry or out-of-focused (things that you can’t fix in post-processing).

If you aren’t familiar with shooting fully-manual, feel free to experiment. It took me a while to get comfortable shooting fully-manual , but it was a truly rewarding experience. All you need to know is to set your ISO at 400, and follow the Sunny 16 Rule.

Therefore in conclusion although we don’t have the power to literally become invisible, there are certain techniques which do give us the greatest benefit: being unnoticed when shooting on the streets.

So how do you stay invisible when shooting on the streets? Make sure to share your tips by leaving a comment below!